Forget the breathtaking vistas of David Lean’s epic film. This is Lawrence of Arabia reduced and confined to a drawing room. Howard Brenton is one the great British playwrights, but this is not one of his great plays.
After helping lead an Arab rebellion against the Ottoman Empire and becoming really rather famous, Brenton’s new play asks what came next for TE Lawrence. Well, a nervous breakdown, a penchant for S&M and a desire to shed his colossal fame.
It sounds juicy, but it’s made unjuicy by a stolid script and stodgy direction from John Dove. Aside from a couple of bits in Arabia, when Michael Taylor’s set parts like the Red Sea, the play is mostly conversations in a drawing room. George Bernard Shaw’s drawing room, in fact, where Lawrence - a friend of the family - hides out to avoid prying journalists.
Jeff Rawle’s Shaw is entertainingly dotty, while a bit of punch and ferocity –and a bit of humour – comes from Field Marshal Allenby (William Chubb) who, when it comes to Lawrence, is torn between admiration and irritation.
Lawrence himself is played with youthful energy by Jack Laskey. It’s not hard to imagine him bounding across the desert on the back of a camel, but he’s convincing neither as a tortured soul nor a brilliant military strategist.
Brenton bucks against the grandeur associated with Lawrence, but it’s unclear what this play wants to be. There’s a strong case for the post-rebellion division of Arabia, borders drawn with a ruler, being the root cause of today’s Middle Eastern turmoil. ‘We will bring chaos and reap a whirlwind,’ warns Lawrence. Plus ça change.
But although it touches on socialism, sexuality, regret and redress, the play never digs in. Maybe it’s the expectation that the story of an extraordinary man should itself be extraordinary, but this quiet, conversational rewriting of Lawrence’s later life seems to be less interesting than the reality